Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Cupid’s attack

It was an ordinary grocery excursion at our friendly neighborhood ASDA; till muzak was interrupted by a smooth, alluring voice announcing a Valentines contest for “the most romantic couple.” Ha-ha, I thought, not us. I hurried home, wrote a few paragraphs, added some clip art, and on our next trip for milk and honey, secretly ushered it to the customer service desk, parking Ben in books and magazines where time stands still.

Serving the person before me, the clerk was certain the cash register was making mistakes and started doing math by hand. After several attempts on scraps of curly register paper, sighing and scribbling with faulty pen as the queue behind me grew, she gave the customer an acceptable (though not exact) refund. Up next, I waited a moment till she recovered from subtraction trauma and handed in my entry (no math required, I thought, put it in with the others). She stared blankly through her smart designer eyewear. She didn’t know what to do; she called another employee who didn’t know what to do; she paged someone who would know who didn’t know what to do. Finally she slid it under a pile of returned merchandise behind her desk and assured me someone would know what to do. My most romantic entry was buried under a moist bag of returned lettuce with a wad of hair or other foreign object pending investigation.

The next day I got a phone call: You’ve won! Unsuspecting Ben asked why ASDA was calling our house. We have to go pick something up at 11 am Wednesday, I said. Pick what up? He asked. (I didn’t hear.)

Wednesday. Valentine’s Day. Front entrance, ASDA. The grinning green-fleecy-topped greeter was expecting us. The fluorescent-yellow-vested assistant was expecting us. She said, the SpennyNews photographer is here, and the Northern Echo will arrive shortly. Thrust into publicity, we were handed a dozen red roses and a bouquet of carnations; total strangers congratulated us, the manager came to greet us. The prize was dinner, bed-and-breakfast at the Honest Lawyer (honest), worth £85. Ben, who had only slept 3 hours the night before, began putting two-and-two together in a befuddled daze.

Photos were taken by the volunteer middle-aged, long-haired, midget-sans-teeth photographer for SpennyNews, sporting a massive laminated “Press” card clipped proudly to his chest. Then by the young blonde ponytailed let’s be creative and shoot through a cut-out heart with my multi-tiered camera equipment I know what I’m doing Northern Echo photographer.

Heads spinning, before we left I asked how many had entered the contest. The fluorescent-yellow-vested lady said it was well advertised, including an ad in the paper. There were five entries. We won by sheer lack of interest.

Friday, 9 February 2007

Before evensong, Durham Cathedral

Evensong with the BBC Philharmonic

Wednesday February 7, 2007, 4:00 pm: Evensong at Durham Cathedral with the BBC Philharmonic and three choirs, broadcast live by the BBC to 250,000 listeners.

We arrived one hour early. The Cathedral was already full. Programs were handed out. Stewards hastened to-and-fro. One was of particular interest. I shall call him James, for he passed so quickly his name tag was a blur. A tall, thin, elderly man proud of all the activity in his charge, James walked sprightly past several times, bent slightly forward to get him there faster. On the first pass he whispered over my head (to no one, but everyone), “Nowwww, what’s next-hhh...” and scurried from here to there fulfilling his objective like a wind-up toy that bumps into the wall and returns. From our seats 21 rows back, I could observe James’ busy schedule. He ushered another elderly steward all the way down the nave to the front, stopped at the crossing, pointed his telescopic arms first to the right, then to the left, dispensed instructions, then returned down the length of the nave, eagerly clearing his throat, ready to tackle his next critical task. The lady steward appeared to understand, showed a few people to their seats and made her way to the back much slower than James, bent to osteoporosis and the weight of a small purse hung across her chest. Neither were seen again till the end, standing with the collection baskets at the back of the Cathedral.

Ten minutes before broadcast, we were warmly welcomed by the BBC producer who had read music at the University of Durham. The evening honored composer Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, probably best known for his arrangement of “I was Glad,” which, in our programs, opened evensong as the introit. Parry also wrote the alternative tune to the congregational hymn we would sing, “O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height”... We were also told that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (never Parry, C. Parry, or even C.H.H. Parry; sometimes Sir Hubert Parry) received an honorary degree in music from the University of Durham in 1894. The BBC producer then graciously closed his talk with this beautiful prayer by George Herbert:
Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more—a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

3:55 pm. The producer exited. Everyone watched the red bulb which would light when we went live. I have never seen the Cathedral filled to capacity and yet so still. Not a whisper, not a stir. Only the occasional irresistible light hack—the nervous, check-if-I-still-have-a-voice ahem-cough-cough. It caught like a yawn, and several echoed their throats. Apart from this ripple, there was no sound. No one moved. We endured five minutes of a stillness that seemed longer than the hour-long program of scripture readings, first from the Old, then the New Testaments; the Magnificat (sung); Simeon’s Prayer (sung); the Apostles’ Creed (recited by all); the Collects—a prayer sung on one note by the Succentor, the Reverend Gilly Myers; the congregational hymn; the blessing; and finally the Voluntary (Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6 by Edward Elgar). At the conclusion of this rousing piece, the same silence returned. With outstretched necks we watched the red light. As soon as it blinked off, after slight hesitation, we broke into applause.

A view of “Ben’s new office”

Ben’s new office

Left, and above, are views of our living/dining room (otherwise known as sitting area and eating table). This state of insurgency began in Summer of 2006, when Ben O’When and his chief operative known simply as Apostle Paul moved South (downstairs) to occupy this space until talks resume to renegotiate a peace treaty with neighboring factions to evict at least one of the settlers. Sources say the situation is unlikely to resolve until the degree is in hand. Chief security spokeswoman observes that it is a peaceful siege, with minor riots and no injuries reported thus far. Investigators indicate a solution could be imminent.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

A view from “freedom afternoon”

Freedom afternoon

We had no commitments after church and made none. We drove straight home, added layers of clothes, didn’t waste time for lunch since we had precious few daylight hours left (sunset @ 4:30). Instead we made hot chocolate and tea to-go. It was a gorgeous afternoon, but windy, and freezing cold. In February the sun has no obligation to shed warmth.

We drove the scenic route, stopping once for sheep pictures.

Our destination was the Roman ruins in Corbridge, not far from Hadrian’s Wall. When we arrived, at-a-glance I realized this site looked the same as the ten others I’ve experienced in-depth. My English Heritage card is expired, I wasn’t paying £4 to see more of the same, I would take a walk instead. However when I came into the ticket office a few minutes after Ben, having stopped at the loo first (too much tea), the woman, knowing I was with him, assumed I had a card and let me through. So instead of walking round the car park, I walked briskly around the perimeter of the ruins for 25 minutes while Ben took photos, imagined all things Roman, and froze.

Invigorated and cold, we left Corbridge near sundown for Newcastle, and our favorite Middle-Eastern restaurant, Basha. It took ages to find parking in town. Street parking was £3 ($6)/hr, 1 hr max, no return. We found one in front of a Subway, £ .50 per 15 mins, 1 hr max, no returns. We finally succumbed to the parking garage at the movie theater complex.

Basha is not a fancy place. No napkins shaped as swans grace the formaica tables; only one paper serviette comes with each place setting. The food here is not judged by the lovely glazes, drizzles or wafers decorating a plate, but in the generous outpouring of olive oil pooled over each traditional Middle-Eastern dip lavished with garlic. The more oil poured, the more generosity shown. We sat near the door, surrounded by framed papyri, lightly-soiled yellow silk flowers (yellow being the theme color in the 14-seat diner); Arabic sayings burnished on pseudo-cedar hung over mirrors—did they say Death to Hezbollah, or Long Live Syria? We didn’t ask.

The cook and the waiter recognized us (at least pretended to, which rendered a generous tip from our Ben). We ordered our usual: falafel for two, one side of hummus and tabbouleh to share. Their bread, made on the premises, is the most authentic I’ve tasted outside Lebanon, even better because there’s no difference between the top and the bottom—both layers are soft bottoms! Nothing commercially available even pretends to come close to this bread (get thee behind me, pita). It is made at time of order and comes to the table piping hot, inside a boat-shaped plastic basket. We ate our (very) late lunch to our heart’s content and then went to see “Night at the Museum.” Ben, and some kids sitting beside me, really loved it.

When we got to the parking garage, parking cost £5.90 ($12)—and we had only been there 3 hours!! So I asked (told) Ben to stop at the security office so I could complain, as it was significantly more than the posted rates. The attendant said, oh, we know... heh-heh... the machines switch prices at 6 pm and charge full price for the time before, and the time after! Unbelievable, a parking meter that has a known fault and these people are making money off it every day!!! He gave me a £2 credit and off we went home, happy, happy... It was a rare and perfect evening.

We calculated, not including petrol, what a simple night out had cost:
Basha meal: £14
Movie: £13 (with Ben’s student discount!)
Parking: £4
Total: £31, more than $60. Unbelievable.

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